The new EU Food Labelling Regulation (the Regulation), which comes into play on 13th December 2014,  is an excellent example of why Northern Ireland businesses need to keep a close eye on decisions made by the EU in terms of legislation changes. The Regulation will have a widespread impact on local agri-food businesses, applying to food business operators at all stages of the food chain where their activities concern the provision of food information to consumers.  Importers of food and alcohol products in particular should pay close attention to changes and how they will impact upon their operations. 

What are the key changes? 

Aiming to improve the level of consumer information and protection in Europe, key changes contained within the new legislation expand on the ways in which food information could be considered misleading in respect of characteristics, properties and/or effect on food and alcohol products. For example, the Regulation stipulates mandatory nutritional information which must be included on all food labelling – including nutritional information on processed foods and origin labelling of unprocessed meat from pig, sheep, goats and poultry – as well as indicating a minimum text size on labels to ensure increased legibility. Producers will also be required to highlight allergens such as peanuts or milk in the list of ingredients.

What do you need to do?

The 13th December implementation is fast approaching and it is essential for businesses to be prudent and plan ahead to ensure that they adhere to the above changes within the Regulation by the relevant deadline (generally speaking the 13 December 2014). In particular, businesses should be considering next steps in terms of label artwork and printing mechanisms given the changes that will occur. Businesses also need to consider carefully how they intend to manage the rundown of existing stock and the replenishment of new compliant stock.

What happens if you don’t comply? 

In Northern Ireland labelling and advertising standards are the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency and enforcement is carried out by local authority officers. For the first time the Regulation will provide the enforcement tool of improvement notices in respect of food labelling and advertising breaches which do not affect public safety. Improvement notices will outline the nature and circumstances of the breach and will stipulate what measures must be taken in order to remedy the breach (and by what date these measures must be in place).

Where a breach has been made in relation to allergens this will be considered a criminal offence and an enforcement officer may decide to prosecute. Whilst there is no draft bill yet we expect that Northern Ireland will follow the English legislation put in place and it is hoped that any enforcement will be proportionate and evidence- based. Enforcement officers may choose a low-level intervention such as a written warning or more formal action depending upon the nature and public health implications of non-compliance.

EU food legislation is intrinsically linked and as such, it is important for businesses to remember that other offences may also apply.  For example, where a 'use by' date is exceeded enforcement officers may prosecute on the basis of the food being considered 'unsafe' pursuant to the General Food Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2004.

Whilst the penalties can be significant in the event of non-compliance, businesses should view the new Regulation as an opportunity to develop new designs and reinvent current packaging. In any event, the EU legislation on food labelling can be a complex web of requirements and it is essential that businesses seek legal advice to ensure compliance with all aspects of the new Regulation.